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The myth of the paperless citizen

6 October 2012

8:46 PM

6 October 2012

8:46 PM

Another day and another unasked for letter asking me to live online. This time it is from my bank, NatWest – and yes, yes, thank you I know that by not moving my account to a reputable bank I am endorsing the pocket-lining incompetents who helped bring Britain to its knees, but as gleeful financiers say: bank customers are more likely to divorce than change banks.

The heirs and successors to Fred Goodwin say they will now send me a bank statement once every three months instead of once a month. They will save on the cost of paper and postage if I agree, and I suppose that in the struggle to repay the billions they owe the taxpayer, NatWest believes that every little helps.

NatWest clearly wants me wants to dispense with paper statements completely and sign up to Internet banking. Indeed, when I pop into my branch, it obliges its wretched clerks, who will lose their jobs if customers go online, to ask me if I would like to go online. Every time I reply that I’m happy to carry on as I am.  It’s my fault I’m sure, but I cannot understand a bank statement unless it is on paper.

Being privileged and middle-class my position is nowhere near as bad as the position of the millions who have no Internet access and are thus excluded from half the deals commerce offers. It’s simply that if I banked online, I would print off my account details using my printer, paper and ink, assuming I remembered to check my account regularly, that is, which I probably would fail to do.

I assumed that I was an isolated soul, a stranger adrift in the 21st century, who neither understood its machines nor comprehended their delights. “If only,” the latest reincarnation of Fred the Shred at the NatWest Tower would say if he ever condescended to notice me, “if only, Cohen, you knew how much we wanted to help you, how much we wanted to give you control of your life, you would thank us on bended knee. You don’t need paper. No one needs paper in the digital age, all the information you require is there for you at a click of a mouse.”

But it turns out that I am not the only hopeless has been. Debunking the myth of “the paperless office” has been a standard story for business journalists on slow news days for years.  As long ago as 1975, Businessweek complained that the office was ‘the last corporate holdout to the automation tide that has swept through the factory and the accounting department.’  That would all change, George E. Pake, who headed Xerox Corp.’s Palo Alto (Calif.) Research Center, assured readers,  ‘There is absolutely no question that there will be a revolution in the office over the next 20 years. What we are doing will change the office like the jet plane revolutionized travel and the way that TV has altered family life. I’ll be able to call up documents from my files on the screen, or by pressing a button. I don’t know how much hard copy I’ll want in this world.’

Despite all the computerisation since the 1970s – a technological advance that Pake might have been unable to imagine – the paperless office is as far away as ever.  People see something important on screen and print it off so they can read it properly. So willing are they to hit the “print” button, the Finnish paper provider Foex predicts that the global paper market could reach a new record of 400m tons (or 7.2 billion trees) in 2012. Enthusiasts for new technologies explain away the failure of the paperless office to arrive as promised by saying that the Web gave us much more to print off, which is true, and by predicting that, as the younger generation brought up with more reliable computer storage grows up, we will print out less. Maybe, but even if their forecasts are right, and they haven’t been right since the 1970s, I wager we will still want hard copies of important documents such as – well – bank statements.

Unfortunately, the costs don’t stop with printing. Internet fraudsters are becoming ever more sophisticated. The BBC reported earlier this year that hackers have found a way round the latest generation of online banking security. (Don’t ask me how, as I implied earlier I yearn for the 20th century when “phishing attacks” meant the Cod War.) What caught my eye was the advice of the BBC “expert” to online customers: ‘Follow banks’ official advice, use up-to-date anti-virus software and be vigilant.’ In other words, accept that the banks had passed a part of cost and the worry of protecting deposits to the online customer.

The more wired up and “in control” we become the more work we have to do.

I learned how the modern corporation shuffles off its responsibilities when officials from Transport for London came to the visit the Observer a few years ago. They were phasing out London’s old Routemaster buses, which came with a conductor to collect the fares. Didn’t they realise, I asked, that women, old people and everyone else who wanted to avoid a fight, liked conductors? They deterred drunken yobs and sexual predators. They were a reassuring presence. They made the vulnerable feel safe, particularly at night.

The transport bosses looked at me with disdain. Did we gilded elitists of the liberal press not know that conducting was a low-paid and dangerous business. Conductors were abused, spat at and assaulted. Transport for London was proud to have put the protection of their staff first, and taken them out of harm’s way.

The gilded elite liberals looked suitably chastised, and only after they left did we have our moment of esprit de l’escalier. We should have said, ‘hold on, to protect your staff from being abused, spat at and assaulted, you want to pass the risk of being abused, spat at and assaulted to your passengers.’

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